Charlotte Black drops back to join me. She’s one of those rare women who looks as pulled together off duty as she does in more formal circumstances. I have to admire her slim-fitting, dark cotton dress and flat, plain sandals and the few adroit bits of silver. “Are you having a good holiday?” she asks as we pause to let two teenagers drag a dinghy over the road, up towards a boatshed.
“Oh, yes. I didn’t really have any plans, and then Polly asked me down, and I’ve never quite got around to leaving,” I say with a laugh.
“Yes, it seems you’ve really become part of the family.” Something in her voice reminds me, as if I needed reminding, that I shouldn’t underestimate Charlotte Black. “What an unusual way to get to know the Kytes.”
Harriet Lane’s debut novel, Alys, Always opens with a young woman, Frances Thorpe, driving on an icy road in northern England, when she happens upon the aftermath of a single-car accident. The driver, Alys Kyte, wife of the famous novelist Laurence Kyte, has only moments to live. It is Frances, lonely assistant editor for the Questioner’s books section, who is present for Alys’s final words, which unexpectedly provide her with an entryway into the lives of the London book industry’s upper crust—and through them, their faults, their secrets, and their infidelities.
Alys, Always is a deceptively narrow story. Alys’s death, the event which sets in motion the entire narrative, is treated as if it is nothing more than a minor detail—a plot device to place Frances in the sights of people she at first seems to dislike or feel impatient towards, but later comes to respect and, to some uncertain degree, love.
I say uncertain because Frances’s character is distractingly uneven. From her somewhat humble beginnings as a journalistic benchwarmer, Frances’s internal monologue is, at first, bitter and full of spite towards her contemporaries; there is an air of frustration about her as she simultaneously decries the perceived ambitions and posturing of others, yet willfully adopts such tactics herself when given the opportunity to rub shoulders with Alys’s family—to get to know them on a more intimate level. What begins as a supposed desire to give closure to her family following Alys’s death quickly spirals into a strange obsession with this semi-elite gathering of spoiled-by-life adults.
Alys, Always reads at times like the soft-spoken British cousin to Stephen King’s Misery. There’s a bit of Annie Wilkes in Frances Thorpe (minus the punishing, murderous intent). The speed at which Frances transitions from comforting presence and minor family friend to a talisman-stealing, pseudo-replacement for Alys is alarming and without satisfactory set-up; though Frances’s ambitions are referenced in the book’s twilight, never do her actions feel so deliberate, so calculated as to be attributed to ambition or upward career mobility. Instead, she regrettably comes across as a lost soul who has managed to fumble her way into a position of some influence, with a family that appears, on the outside, to need her and value what she has to say more than her own family, or her employers.
With its titular character little more than a footnote to an unfortunately two-dimensional story, Alys, Always is unable to rise beyond its rather straightforward premise. Frances Thorpe is an unpredictable lead, vacillating between timid, friendly, manipulative, and desperate, with little to no reason given for the changes her character sees. Alys, Always feels less like a novel and more like a draft for a screenplay, its characters static and incomplete.